Cultural challenges faced by foster carers and children of Gypsy and Traveller communities

By Emma Nuttall, Advice and Policy Manager of Friends, Families and Travellers

The number of foster carers from the Gypsy and Traveller communities in the UK is currently extremely low. This is a great shame considering there is a great need for Gypsy/Traveller children to be fostered by carers from their own ethnic backgrounds.

 
The number of foster carers from the Gypsy and Traveller communities in the UK is currently extremely low. This is a great shame considering there is a great need for Gypsy/Traveller children to be fostered by carers from their own ethnic backgrounds.
 
Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are two separate and recognised ethnic minority groups in the UK; they achieved ethnic minority status in case law by virtue of, each group individually, having a shared language, culture and history.  
 
For the first time in 2011 the general Census form included Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers in a separate tick box under the ethnicity section. Only 58,000 people ticked the shared box, however estimates of the true numbers in the UK are nearer to 300,000; Gypsy and Traveller people have a history of hiding their identity due to the high levels of discrimination faced-an ultimate example of which is that approximately 500,000 Gypsies are estimated to have been killed in the Holocaust.
 
Racism against Gypsies and Travellers in the UK is endemic, and the last bastion of socially accepted racism.  The previous chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, said the level of racism against Gypsies and Travellers in 21st Century Britain was comparable to that faced by black Americans in the Deep South of 1950s USA.  For Gypsy and Traveller children to be fostered by carers not from their communities there are huge cultural differences, and their foster carers will not have experienced the anti-Gypsy/Traveller racism they most likely will have.  The children may have grown up in caravans, on caravan sites, or on the side of the road (as there is a huge shortage of authorised caravan sites) and may not have ever lived in a house, and may have socialised primarily in Gypsy/Traveller communities with little interaction with other communities.  To then be taken away from your family, put in a house, and fostered by people from a culture the child may have had little contact with, and who may have had no contact with or awareness of, the child’s culture, will be a huge psychological strain.  
 
Whilst, in the best case scenario, no-one is questioning the love foster carers are offering, research carried out by Dan Allen, a senior social work lecturer from Edge Hill University and author of ‘Social Work with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Children’, into the foster care experiences of Gypsy and Traveller children, has found that such are the cultural differences, the children are often not able to feel or receive that love.  Allen’s research found that in the worst case scenario, there was racism and prejudice from foster carers, and that children felt cut off from their family and culture, and immersed in an alien culture that attempted to assimilate them.
 
It has long been recognised that children from other ethnic minorities benefit enormously from being fostered by carers from their own ethnic backgrounds, this needs to be acknowledged for Gypsy/Traveller children and a recruitment drive undertaken to recruit carers from these backgrounds.  We believe the uptake would be good as Gypsy/Traveller communities are very family and children focused, and would make fantastic foster carers if they knew such opportunities existed; but they have not been promoted in the communities.  A focused promotion of fostering to Gypsy/Traveller communities could include the making of a DVD with Gypsy/Traveller actors/voices, leaflets with Gypsy/Traveller photos, and meetings aimed at the communities explaining what fostering entails, and what support and training is given.  The take up could be huge!